The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward
On October 24, 1960, a composer named Charles Dumont arrived at the posh Paris apartment of Edith Piaf with fear in his heart and songs Oin his briefcase. At the time, Piaf was perhaps the most famous entertainer in France and one of the best-known singers in the world. She was also quite frail. Although she was just forty-four years old, addiction, accidents, and hard living had ravaged her body. She weighed less than a hundred pounds. Three months earlier Piaf had been in a coma because of liver damage.
Yet despite her wispy presence, she remained notoriously mercurial and hot-tempered. She considered Dumont and his professional partner, lyricist Michel Vaucaire, who had joined him on the visit, second-rate musical talents. Earlier in the day, her secretary had left messages trying to cancel the meeting. Piaf initially refused to see the men, forcing them to wait uneasily in her living room. But just before she went to bed, she appeared, swaddled in a blue dressing gown, and relented.
She’d hear one song, she told them. That’s it.
Dumont sat down at Piaf’s piano. Sweaty and nervous, he began playing his music while softly speaking the lyrics Vaucaire had written.
Non, rien de rien.
Non, je ne regrette rien. No, nothing at all.
No, I regret nothing at all.
She asked Dumont to play the song again, wondering aloud whether he’d really written it. She assembled a few friends who happened to be visiting to hear it. Then she gathered her household staff for a listen.
Hours passed. Dumont played the song over and over, more than twenty times, according to one account. Piaf telephoned the director of L’Olympia, the premier Parisian concert venue, who arrived just before dawn to hear the work.
Non, rien de rien.
Non, je ne regrette rien.
C’est payé, balayé, oublié.
Je me fous du passé.
No, nothing at all.
No, I regret nothing at all.
It’s paid, swept away, forgotten. I couldn’t care less about the past.
A few weeks later, Piaf sang the two-minute, nineteen-second song on French television. In December, when she performed it as the rousing final number of a concert that helped rescue L’Olympia from financial ruin, she received twenty-two curtain calls. By the end of the following year, fans had purchased more than one million copies of her “Je ne regrette rien” record, elevating her status from chanteuse to icon.
Three years later, Piaf was dead.
One cold Sunday morning in February of 2016, Amber Chase awoke in her apartment in the western Canadian city of Calgary. Her then-Oboyfriend (and now-husband) was out of town, so the previous evening she had gone out with some girlfriends, a few of whom had slept over. The friends were talking and drinking mimosas when Chase, propelled by some combination of inspiration and boredom, said, “Let’s go get tattooed today!” So, they climbed into the car and rolled to Jokers Tattoo & Body Piercing on Highway 1, where the resident artist inked two words on Chase’s skin.
The tattoo Chase got that day was nearly identical to the one Mirella Battista decided on five years earlier and 2,400 miles away. Battista grew up in Brazil, and moved to Philadelphia in her early twenties to attend college. She relished her adopted city. While in school, she landed a job at a local accounting firm. She made lots of friends. She even forged a long-term romantic relationship with a Philly guy. The two seemed headed for marriage when, five years into the relationship, she and the boyfriend broke up. So, nine years after arriving in America, and looking for what she called a “reset button,” she moved back to Brazil. However, weeks before returning, she had two words tattooed just behind her right ear.
Unbeknownst to Battista, her brother, Germanno Teles, had gotten a nearly identical tattoo the previous year. Teles became enamored of motorcycles as a boy, an affection his safety-conscious physician parents neither shared nor supported. But he learned everything he could about motorcycles, saved his centavos, and eventually purchased a Suzuki. He loved it. Then one afternoon while riding on the highway near his Brazilian hometown of Fortaleza, he was hit from the side by another vehicle, injuring his left leg and limiting his future riding days. A short time later, he had the image of a motorcycle tattooed just below the knee of his injured leg. Beside it were two words in script arching alongside the path of his scar.
The tattoo Teles got that day was nearly identical to the one Bruno Santos would get in Lisbon, Portugal, in 2013. Santos is a human resources executive who doesn’t know Chase, Battista, or Teles. Frustrated at his job, he walked out of the office one afternoon and headed directly to a tattoo parlor. He emerged with a three-syllable phrase imprinted on his right forearm.
Four people living on three continents, each with tattoos that bear the same two words:
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